Two years ago, I edited an editorial package about how teens had become the progressive role models we really needed and in one of the stories, writer Katie Underwood argued that it was “becoming increasingly difficult for ‘grownups’ to reconcile the slapdash stereotypes they associate with modern youth with the seeds of meaningful societal change we’ve seen them sow in recent times.”
At the time, we were thinking about the thousands of American high school students who staged mass walkouts to protest gun violence following the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, and the Ontario teens who organized a March for Education after the province’s new (at the time) conservative government scrapped the recently implemented sex-ed curriculum.
And we weren’t the only ones to feel inspired by teens’ public woke-ness; in 2017, Katy Perry told Bustle that she was “so grateful that young people know the names of senators. I think teenage girls are going to save the world! That age group just seems to be holding people accountable. They have a really strong voice—and a loud one.” And Harry Styles similarly praised his fans in an interview with Rolling Stone, saying, “how can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going.”
Two years later, we’re still calling teenage girls our heroes and casting them as our saviours, whether we’re talking about climate activist Greta Thunberg or Claudia Conway, the 15-year-old daughter of Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, whose scathing anti-Trump TikToks have earned her more than a million TikTok followers and plenty of attention from #ResistanceTwitter.
But… should we be?
Protect Claudia Conway at all costs 😂👑 She is an American hero.— Kameron Michaels (@KameronMichaels) October 3, 2020
I 100% still believe “the youth” are our future (and, as Underwood noted, they’ve always taken a leading role in political activism), but I’m starting to feel uncomfortable with the idea that teens, and especially teen girls, are responsible for saving the world. And a big part of that is the way people have rallied behind Conway.
Progressive publications first began paying attention to Conway’s anti-Trump videos this summer, when New York Times journalist Taylor Lorenz posted a Twitter thread of her most scathingburns. In August, she went viral again for tweeting about her mother’s decision to speak at the Republican National Convention. “i’m devasted that my mother is actually speaking at the RNC. like DEVASTATED beyond compare,” she posted on August 22, before revealing that she was planning to push for emancipation—and the next day, clarifying that she wasn’t doing so because of her Kellyanne’s job, but because of “years of childhood trauma and abuse.” Kellyanne soon announced that she’d be leaving the White House—though whether she actually did that is unclear; she was at Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett’s Rose Garden ceremony on Sept. 26, after all. And that leads us to another of Conway’s big media moments: posting a video breaking the news that her mother had COVID-19, and—as a little treat—also casting doubt on the president’s health in various TikTok comments.
After each viral post, there’s a predictable outpouring of praise. She’s a Gen Z Bob Woodward, a true patriot, a YA heroine come to life and, of course, stan-worthy. But it’s hard not to see all this attention as exploitative.
Conway isn’t a “well-placed” undercover operative, or a spy, or a political wunderkind. At best, she’s a kid who feels misunderstood and politically misaligned with her parents and who’s turning to social media for comfort. At worst, she’s also being abused. Isn’t there something kind of gross about positioning her as our saviour when she may very well need saving herself?
It’s also hard to know how much of what she’s saying is true. She has been pretty open about her attempts to go viral and garner online influence, so it’s not completely outside of the realm of possibility that she’d exaggerate or overstate for effect. Or, to take a darker view, that she’s being forced to post things that aren’t true to salvage her family’s reputation. (This statement seems… different from her usual tone, for example.) Either way, she’s not a journalist, and it’s irresponsible of us to think of her that way.
There’s also a big-picture problem: when adults talk about how teenagers are going to save us all, it absolves those same adults of the responsibility to actually do something. Even if some of this praise is not entirely serious, many of the people who are tweeting about Conway’s heroic actions seem pretty genuine about casting her as a hero… and that kind of thinking can easily become habit. We’ve seen it before—as writer Miles Klee pointed out in Mel last month, the way we’re talking about Conway is similar to how we talked about Thunberg and the Parkland kids and Malala Yousafzai. We love to rally behind a smart, sincere young person who hasn’t yet become jaded and cynical, but how are we at actually fighting climate change? (Not that great.)
In a way, our desire to put a human face on important issues is understandable; movements need figureheads to help people feel personally connected to their messages. But figureheads are by definition symbolic, and movements can only enact real change if adults do the things teens may not be able to, like voting—and not just for president, but also for state senators, attorney generals, judges and other down-ballot roles. And telling their elected officials that they care about police brutality, fair wages, accessibility and other important issues, ideally by phone and in reference to specific legislation. (Local organizers probably have a list of the most important action items for your municipality.) And campaigning for candidates that share your values, participating in protests, volunteering with local organizers, donating to crowdfunding efforts…
"Claudia Conway will save us," no bitch she's 15 we have to save HER— Julia Claire (@ohJuliatweets) October 7, 2020
In fact, that’s what they’re asking for. As Klee notes, “if you actually listen to Thunberg and the Parkland group, you won’t necessarily hear how they plan to enact systemic change. Instead, they are telling the adults to get their act together, and wondering why it has fallen to the youth to voice any call to virtuous action.”
The idea that a single teenage girl can make all the difference is a really compelling narrative, but that’s not how it works in real life. I still think young people are smart, engaged or inspiring. But if we really believe teens are the future, we have to support them, encourage them and protect them, not leave them to do the hard work of changing the world. And that means we should probably unlearn our obsession with the hero narrative and instead start making collective action cool.
Friday Picks #2: Blood Quantum
Announcing… Our next Friday Picks event! We’ll be discussing Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum on IG Live on Friday, October 30 at 7pm.
An Indigenous zombie movie, Blood Quantum feels like the right way to cap off spooky szn—and it includes plenty of smart social commentary, so we know it’s going to be a good conversation. Check out the trailer below, get more info at fridaythings.com/fridaypicks and join us on Instagram later this month to discuss.
And Did You Hear About…
This really smart Buzzfeed feature about why influencers can no longer avoid politics.
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